Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Illusionist: When The Magic Fades...

The Illusionist (L'Illusioniste)
UK/France 2010
Directed by Sylvain Chomet

In talking about The Illusionist, I feel conflicted about whether or not to consider the controversy surrounding the script (adapted by Chomet from an unproduced screenplay by the late, beloved French comic Jacques Tati) and its relationship to real-life events. This complicated relationship does have some impact on the film's emotional journey, but I usually think that films have to be reviewed for themselves rather than any external issues. And, in and of itself, The Illusionist is a beautiful-looking, melancholy, sentimental film about the conflict between illusions and reality, and the ever-progressing march of time.

Tatischeff (an animated likeness of Tati himself, bearing his actual last name) is a music hall magician who struggles to find a place for his old-fashioned act in 1950s Paris. He keeps moving farther away to ply his trade until, at a Scottish seaside village, he meets Alice, an innocent young girl who fully believes his illusions to be real magic. The two form a close father-daughter bond and move to Edinburgh, where, in the company of other failing music hall acts, Tatischeff uses his meager earnings to continue providing Alice with gifts in the hopes of keeping his one real fan happy.

Chomet, best known for his Oscar-nominated animated film The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville), and his team bring a similar style to their depiction of late-fifties Europe. Every frame is filled with interesting details, gorgeously-painted backdrops, and quirkily-emotive characters. Even without a story, this film would be wholly watchable for its amazing visual style, which—far from being mere eye candy—also serves a storytelling purpose. There is little to no real dialog, with most of the words being nonsense pidgin forms of French, English, and Gallic. Chomet allows the characters and their actions to tell the story, much as Tati did in his successful career as a director and actor.

But the marriage of the two men's styles is uneven. Some sequences (Tatischeff waiting through a British mod band's interminable encores before taking the stage) feel more Tati-like, while others (Tatischeff helping a team of acrobats to paint a billboard) seem more at home in Chomet's world. While Tati's films displayed a great sense of visual wit and social satire, Chomet relies on cartoonish set-ups more than silent film–like choreography. Chomet is also far more concerned with creating a nostalgic, emotional tone than with satirizing the changing times as Tati so often did. And this emotional tone is far darker and more despondent than most viewers will likely expect going into the film.

Indeed, The Illusionist is an extremely sad film, especially as it heads towards its conclusion. Like Chaplin's Limelight, it laments the passing of an age when magicians, ventriloquists, and clowns could ply their trade and be rewarded for their efforts. As depressing as the used-up music hall performers may be, the film also uses them as a more general metaphor for the ways in which growing up destroys our fantasies and consigns us to life in dull reality. Similarly, Tatischeff's relationship with Alice will feel familiar to parents of grown-up children, who have learned the hard way that no amount of gifts or magical thinking will stop the clock. Some of this may seem overly sentimental, but I never felt that the film struck any false notes—even if the notes it struck were far bluer than I expected.

I can't speak to the deviations the script, as filmed, takes from Tati's original intentions. Nor, again, do I think it necessary to consider Tati's real-life troubles even though they clearly informed the film's storyline. In so much as it is an example of an animated film made for grown-ups, The Illusionist provides much to be admired. I'm not sure it works as well as a "lost" Tati film, both because of the stylistic clashes I mentioned earlier and because, without Tati's actual input, it plays more like a tribute than a continuation of his canon. Besides, this is Chomet's film, and all of the little touches and bits of business he inserts make it more of a piece with his oeuvre than that of Tati.

I still feel that it hangs together pretty well on the whole, and can't fault the film for not being what it might have been in Tati's day. It is dark, and it is sentimental, and you may not feel it fully earns this somber sentimentality. But as a reflection on what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the generation gap, The Illusionist is spot-on. The changing times sweep in and out, taking with them old ways of life, whether in the form of once-popular entertainments or the manufacturing jobs fast becoming an endangered species in the US today. It is painful to realize you've become obsolete, and this film is steeped in the pain that slow realization brings. It is something to which we can all relate, or will relate to, someday.

(Whether you like The Illusionist or not, you should still check out Tati's earlier films. I recommend M. Hulot's Holiday as a starting point, though all of the Hulot films (Mon Oncle, Playtime, Trafic) are well worth watching!)


  1. I liked The Illusionist but was a little taken aback by how sad it all was. The tone was so very different than Triplets. Maybe if I knew anything about Tati I would not have been so surprised.

    The only thing I did not like was the lead singer of the British mod band. It struck me as weirdly homophobic. Maybe I am reading too much in to it.

    I love the fact that there is no real dialog at all. I don't know what about that makes me so pleased but there you are.

  2. @spurge -

    Yeah, it is a very sad movie in contrast with Belleville. I'm not surprised that the dour tone felt jarring to you. I've never read Tati's script, so I don't know how true the film to its tone, but the story ostensibly behind the script is a sad one, so I'm guessing it's somewhat faithful.

    The homophobia totally went over my head. I didn't read it that way at all, instead thinking the mod band were just a bunch of self-indulgent youngsters meant to contrast with Tatischeff's reserved demeanor. But you're not the first person to see homophobia, there, so perhaps I just missed it!

    Tati's films themselves often had very little dialog, perhaps due to his background as a mime. They feel like more modern versions of old silent comedies, and are really delightful to watch (quite a tonal shift from the bleakness of The Illusionist).

  3. Either way I did not like the way the Mod band was portrayed. Who else thought it might be a bit homophobic?

    Maybe it was more about being anti-modern, which also rubs me the wrong way. I don't mind nostalgia for things lost but change is inevitable.

  4. @spurge -

    I can't remember where I read that complaint. Either in a review, or in an article about the movie. I don't do TONS of research, so it could really only have been in a few places, but it was definitely a concern I saw brought up elsewhere.

    Maybe it's not so much anti-modern as it is the way "modern" appears filtered through an old-fashioned person's perspective? It can't look cool and hip to someone whose perspective is outdated, it has to look vapid and indulgent. That's one explanation, anyway :-P

  5. I like that explanation. Makes a lot of sense. Now I have to watch it again!